Leadership in Higher Education

What are the key skills required of our higher education leaders of the future?  A recent discussion with an experienced senior university manager prompted me to give this topic some thought.

I am not referring to those skills which are discipline specific, nor those which relate to teaching or research or core administrative functions such as finance and IT.   Rather, I am talking about the attributes required of any senior executive operating in a complex, rapidly changing and global enterprise – in this context, a University.  These are skills and attributes required of both academic and non academic leaders alike.

The types of words and phrases that seem to appear more and more as core traits required to navigate the complex world of higher education include innovation (overused perhaps, but essentially how do we do things that we have been doing for many years in a better way), systems thinking (considering the impact that one thing may have on another in a complex organisation), stakeholder management (universities are one of the most complex organisations in relation to stakeholder influence, much of it covert), communication (importantly, speaking the language of the audience), and emotional intelligence (the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and relate to others).

Universities are organisations familiar with the concept of planning.  As part of this process one of the key considerations must be whether leaders (and leaders of the future) possess those traits required.  This suggests the following questions:

  • How do we identify the skills needed? 
  • How do we bring such skills into our organisation in areas where they are lacking? 
  • How do we attract individuals possessing such skills? 
  • How do we culturally integrate such people into our organisation? 
  • How do we retain and develop these individuals and ensure skills transfer occurs over time?

 Much university time is spent looking at the attraction and development of technical competencies.  We would suggest that an equal focus should be given to leadership competencies.  These are essential to assist the organisation remain relevant in a rapidly changing world and furthermore to facilitate organisational renewal.

 Rohan Carr
October 2013

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